How Walking Fosters Creativity: Stanford Researchers Confirm What Philosophers & Writers Have Always Known

Image via Diego Sevil­la Ruiz

A cer­tain Zen proverb goes some­thing like this: “A five year old can under­stand it, but an 80 year old can­not do it.” The sub­ject of this rid­dle-like say­ing has been described as “mindfulness”—or being absorbed in the moment, free from rou­tine men­tal habits. In many East­ern med­i­ta­tive tra­di­tions, one can achieve such a state by walk­ing just as well as by sit­ting still—and many a poet and teacher has pre­ferred the ambu­la­to­ry method.

This is equal­ly so in the West, where we have an entire school of ancient philosophy—the “peri­patet­ic”—that derives from Aris­to­tle and his con­tem­po­raries’ pen­chant for doing their best work while in leisure­ly motion. Friedrich Niet­zsche, an almost fanat­i­cal walk­er, once wrote, “all tru­ly great thoughts are con­ceived by walk­ing.” Niet­zsche’s moun­tain walks were ath­let­ic, but walk­ing—Frédéric Gros main­tains in his A Phi­los­o­phy of Walk­ing—is not a sport; it is “the best way to go more slow­ly than any oth­er method that has ever been found.”

Gros dis­cuss­es the cen­tral­i­ty of walk­ing in the lives of Niet­zsche, Rim­baud, Kant, Rousseau, and Thore­au. Like­wise, Rebec­ca Sol­nit has pro­filed the essen­tial walks of lit­er­ary fig­ures such as William Wordsworth, Jane Austen, and Gary Sny­der in her book Wan­der­lust, which argues for the neces­si­ty of walk­ing in our own age, when doing so is almost entire­ly unnec­es­sary most of the time. As great walk­ers of the past and present have made abun­dant­ly clear—anecdotally at least—we see a sig­nif­i­cant link between walk­ing and cre­ative think­ing.

More gen­er­al­ly, writes Fer­ris Jabr in The New York­er, “the way we move our bod­ies fur­ther changes the nature of our thoughts, and vice ver­sa.” Apply­ing mod­ern research meth­ods to ancient wis­dom has allowed psy­chol­o­gists to quan­ti­fy the ways in which this hap­pens, and to begin to explain why. Jabr sum­ma­rizes the exper­i­ments of two Stan­ford walk­ing researchers, Mar­i­ly Oppez­zo and her men­tor Daniel Schwartz, who found that almost two hun­dred stu­dents test­ed showed marked­ly height­ened cre­ative abil­i­ties while walk­ing. Walk­ing, Jabr writes in poet­ic terms, works by “set­ting the mind adrift on a froth­ing sea of thought.”

Oppez­zo and Schwartz spec­u­late, “future stud­ies would like­ly deter­mine a com­plex path­way that extends from the phys­i­cal act of walk­ing to phys­i­o­log­i­cal changes to the cog­ni­tive con­trol of imag­i­na­tion.” They rec­og­nize that this dis­cov­ery must also account for such vari­ables as when one walks, and—as so many notable walk­ers have stressed—where. Researchers at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan have tack­led the where ques­tion in a paper titled “The Cog­ni­tive Ben­e­fits of Inter­act­ing with Nature.” Their study, writes Jabr, showed that “stu­dents who ambled through an arbore­tum improved their per­for­mance on a mem­o­ry test more than stu­dents who walked along city streets.”

One won­ders what James Joyce—whose Ulysses is built almost entire­ly on a scaf­fold­ing of walks around Dublin—would make of this. Or Wal­ter Ben­jamin, whose con­cept of the flâneur, an arche­typ­al urban wan­der­er, derives direct­ly from the insights of that most imag­i­na­tive deca­dent poet, Charles Baude­laire. Clas­si­cal walk­ers, Roman­tic walk­ers, Mod­ernist walkers—all rec­og­nized the cre­ative impor­tance of this sim­ple move­ment in time and space, one we work so hard to mas­ter in our first years, and some­times lose in lat­er life if we acquire it. Going for a walk, con­tem­po­rary research confirms—a mun­dane activ­i­ty far too eas­i­ly tak­en for granted—may be one of the most salu­tary means of achiev­ing states of enlight­en­ment, lit­er­ary, philo­soph­i­cal, or oth­er­wise, whether we roam through ancient forests, over the Alps, or to the cor­ner store.

Note: An ear­li­er ver­sion of this post appeared on our site in 2015.

via The New York­er/Stan­ford News

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Why You Do Your Best Think­ing In The Show­er: Cre­ativ­i­ty & the “Incu­ba­tion Peri­od”

The 10 Para­dox­i­cal Traits of Cre­ative Peo­ple, Accord­ing to Psy­chol­o­gist Mihaly Csik­szent­mi­ha­lyi (RIP)

Cre­ativ­i­ty, Not Mon­ey, is the Key to Hap­pi­ness: Dis­cov­er Psy­chol­o­gist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly’s The­o­ry of “Flow”

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (13)
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  • Sue says:

    I found this fas­ci­nat­ing, as walk­ing has always been my best way of clear­ing my mind and get­ting cre­ative juices flow­ing. I think rhyth­mic body move­ment in gen­er­al, stops mind chat­ter.

  • Miles says:

    Add The Song­lines by Bruce Chatwin to the list of books that plough this fur­rough.

  • Marin Tomuța says:

    I used to clean and some­times I’d get real­ly cre­ative instan­ta­neous insights: ‘clean­li­ness is next to god­li­ness’ but not late­ly though they might be delayed now.

  • Charles Adams says:

    Great essay. I walk my farm every­day. I loop. Prob­lem solv­ing, argu­ing. It tru­ly changes you. Thank you

  • Bryce says:

    You did not answer the ques­tion of how walk­ing increas­es cre­ativ­i­ty, what I was most inter­est­ed in

  • Pat says:

    Walk­ing helps me clear my mind enough to stop the chat­ter and put things into per­spec­tive. Per­haps that leads to cre­ative prob­lem-solv­ing. I recommend_ 52 Ways to Walk_ by Annabel Streets…I found it enchant­i­ng!

  • John A says:

    “I don’t like either the word [hike] or the thing. Peo­ple ought to saunter in the moun­tains — not ‘hike!’ Do you know the ori­gin of that word saunter? It’s a beau­ti­ful word. Away back in the mid­dle ages peo­ple used to go on pil­grim­ages to the Holy Land, and when peo­ple in the vil­lages through which they passed asked where they were going they would reply, ‘A la sainte terre’, ‘To the Holy Land.’ And so they became known as sainte-terre-ers or saun­ter­ers. Now these moun­tains are our Holy Land, and we ought to saunter through them rev­er­ent­ly, not ‘hike’ through them.”
    ― John Muir

  • Anna B says:

    I was walk­ing for hours in the woods of Ukraine. I was enjoy­ing to walk by the riv­er and wild fields. Lat­er, I was draw­ing for hours.
    I was walk­ing dai­ly in the park dur­ing pan­dem­ic. Walk­ing is heal­ing…

  • Doug carpenter says:

    A favorite phrase of St. Augus­tine was in Latin.
    “ solvi­tur ambu­lan­do. “. Look up that phrase.

  • ANGELA says:

    I love walk­ing by the sea .as the sea teach­es me

  • Kirk Patrick says:

    The rea­son we think more clear­ly when we are walk­ing is because our body is DESIGNED to be mov­ing. We burn calo­ries at the opti­mal rate, with the fewest emis­sions (which are in our blood in the form of CO2 ratios). Sit­ting is like idling our car, we have fumes. We pro­duce 300 bio efflu­ents or tox­ic gas­es that are coun­ter­bal­anced by trees. So walk­ing is the opti­mal state and the mind is more clear.

  • Dan Haldeman says:

    Walk­ing is a won­der­ful car­dio exer­cise, improves focus,and well- being.Mindfulness is a state of con­cious­ness that is delib­er­ate­ly engaged through spe­cif­ic efforts. George Gur­d­ji­eff in a lec­ture in Moscow in 1923 intro­duced the audi­ence to “Self-remem­ber­ing” an exer­cise that places one­self in the present. Some philoso­phers have equat­ed Self-remem­ber­ing to Mind­ful­ness.

  • Sheila Crosby says:

    I had my leg ampu­tat­ed for can­cer. I’m still learn­ing to use my pros­thet­ic and I miss walk­ing for all sorts of rea­sons. Exer­cise, de-stress­ing, cre­ative prob­lem-solv­ing, shop­ping, pho­tog­ra­phy…
    Enjoy it while you can. You nev­er know.

    (For­tu­nate­ly I have a bal­cony with a great view, and I can get some of the cre­ative effects by knit­ting, and I hang onto the door­frame and dance for exer­cise. It could be very much worse, but I still miss walk­ing par­tic­u­lar­ly in a for­est.)

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